History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Lecture: Science and Sentiment
(The Enlightenment)

Yes, it used to be the theme to Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. It's also Rondeau by Jean Joseph Mouret (1729).


Lecture contents:

Scientific Revolution
From Science to Enlightenment
The Salons
Crime That Paid

Religious persecutors are not believers, they are rascals.

-- Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1761)


Voltaire at Ferney
Voltaire at Ferney
Notice the neatly organized garden, indicative of the rationalist mindset.


Scientific Revolution

Lisa's definition of modern science: the combination of empirical and rational knowledge.

Ptolemaic-Aristotelian system

Before the scientific developments of the 17th century, Europeans knew that the pattern of the Ptolemaic systemuniverse was based on the systems developed by the ancient astronomer Ptolemy and the Greek philosopher Aristotle. This Ptolemaic-Aristotelian system put the earth at the center of the universe, unmoving and pulling heavy elements (earth, water) toward itself and pushing light elements (air, fire) away. Surrounding the earth were a series of concentric spheres made of a fifth element called quintessence (that is, the fifth essence). On these transparent spheres rested the planets and stars. These spheres rotated around the earth in predictable patterns, causing the rising and setting of moon and planets, the movement of stars, and the paths of comets and meteors.

Sound silly? Really? Tonight, if it's clear, go outside. Do the stars seem to move in groups? Do you feel the earth moving, or do you track the stars? Tomorrow, go to the beach. Does the sun set, or do you feel the earth rotate?

My point is, the system was based on empirical knowledge, that knowledge learned through your five senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch). The knowledge you have that makes you think the earth rotates and revolves around the sun is rational knowledge. It was told to you by your culture, taught to you over and over. It's unlikely that you have empirical knowledge of the system, unless you've been up on a spacecraft.

The Ptolemaic-Aristotelian system worked fine for Europeans for centuries.

Copernican Theory

Then came Copernicus, a priest and mathematician. Copernican systemBy his time (the 16th century) earlier astronomers had added many spheres to the original system to account for such observations as retrograde motions and meteor paths. As a mathematician, dedicated to reducing knowledge to quantifiable terms, Copernicus found the system inelegant. He tried, on paper, to reduce the number of spheres, to make the system more efficient. He succeeded. His solution put the sun at the center of the system, making a heliocentric universe.

The Catholic Church, however, had long interpreted the Bible to mean that the earth was at the center of the universe. Copernicus reserved publication of his theory until his death, but so long as it was just presented as a theory, a hypothesis, a "what if", the Church had no problem. Astronomers found the system handy because it made their calculations more accurate.

What Copernicus had done, because he had never looked at the sky, was added the rational element to an empirical system.

Brahe, Kepler and Galileo

Although he did not accept Copernican heliocentrism, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (d. 1601) created new instruments for studying the heavens and gathered a tremendous amount of data. He observed bodies and tracked the entirety of their orbits, bringing to light many inaccuracies and throwing wrenches into the works of 17th century astronomy. His observations of the birth of a star and a new comet challenged Aristotle's premise that the earth and the heavens were made of different substances, with the heavens being unchangeable. Tycho Brahe
Kepler Johannes Kepler began as an assistant to Brahe and later applied mathematics to Brahe's data. He was the first to develop the notion that planets moved in ellipses around Copernicus' heliocentric system. His three laws of planetary motion were later used by Newton.
Galileo developed the telescope using optical lenses available thanks to the technologies of Arab craftsmen. An Italian professor of mathematics, he studied motion and mechanics using experimentation, thus combining rationalism with empiricism. He created controlled reenactments of natural phenomena, such as rolling bronze balls down a smooth channel to measure acceleration. He developed the law of inertia, and thus destroyed the old concepts about heavy objects being in a natural state of rest. Through his telescope he saw other contradictions to prevailing theory, such as Jupiter's moons, which appeared to be rotating (against the rules) around a turning planet (also against the rules) and thus weren't on a known celestial sphere. telescope

So long as Galileo was willing to present his findings as theories rather than facts, the Catholic Church had no problem. Overwhelmed by his new discoveries, and filled with the knowledge he was right, Galileo began to publish his findings as facts. Members of the scientific community were intrigued by his work, but some were concerned about the ways in which it contradicted the Bible, which presented a still earth and the universe around it. The Grand Duchess Christina was one such person, and Galileo's letter to her has been taken as the ultimate break with the Church's view of the heavens.
bookWorkbook document: Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615)

Galileo's publications led to arrest by the Papal Inquisition. When threatened with torture, Galileo agreed to recant his views as facts.

Newtonian synthesis

Englishman Isaac Newton is credited with putting together into one system the previous century's scientific achievements: Copernican mathematical simplicity + Brahe's massive collection of data + Kepler's elliptical orbits + Galileo's telescopic observations.. His combination of the experimental method with rational theory was seamless. His Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687) broke new ground with some basic principles, including the idea that natural forces act in predictable ways. Of equal importance was the idea that there was no difference between celestial (heavenly) and terrestrial (earthly) physics. Therefore, experiments about the heavens could be conducted on earth.

But don't mistake Newton for a modern scientist. He also believed in alchemy to turn metal into gold.

From Science to Enlightenment

The principles of combining rationalism with empiricism had their basis in philosophy. In fact, what we would call science was called "natural philosophy". Francis Bacon (1561-1626) popularized the new scientific experimental method, and can be used to represent the empirical side of the equation. He believed in inductive reasoning, gathering data and using the data to develop a conclusion (reasoning from the specifics to the generality).

René Descartes (1596-1650) was a mathematician and the developer of analytic geometry. He used deductive reasoning, deducing from large general truths the reality of the particulars. For example, he began by doubting everything except the basic truths that could not be discovered empirically. Geometry was unquestionable. A line is always the shortest distance between two points, for example.


These ideas mark the transition from Scientific Revolution to Enlightenment. The Enlightenment can be seen as the application of science to the rest of life. Enlightenment philosophers, the philosophes, believed that all aspects of life could be understood in the same way as natural phenomena. The application of reason to such areas as politics, society, economics, etc. is the Enlightenment.

Voltaire and Reason

Just like science itself, the Enlightenment had two sides that could be in opposition or work together.

The first concerns the issue of science itself, and its purpose. Philosophes like Voltaire believed in science as the ultimate expression of human control over nature. His faith was in reason to solve human problems, such as religious intolerance (as a lawyer, for example, he took a case defending a man accused of murdering his son for converting to Roman Catholicism).

Diderot encyclopedia imageAlong with him were scholars like Diderot, who published the Encyclopedia, which purported to be a multi-volume collection of all known facts. It contained marvelous drawings of machinery (see some here), reflecting the Enlightenment fascination with mechanical techniques of controlling nature. Interestingly enough, the Encyclopedia contained no reference to God, because God cannot be "known". The Catholic Church banned the Encyclopedia, but most clergymen (who tended to be quite scientific and intellectual) had subscriptions as the volumes were published!

Rousseau and Emotion

Rousseau The other side of the Enlightenment is best represented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. To Rousseau, the rational mind was not what made one human. Emotions, intuition, those parts of people which are natural, were considered more important.

In practice, this meant a focus on the natural state of human beings. Nature was the greatest teacher, and Rousseau's educational method, published in his work Emile, promoted a natural form of education based on the interests and needs of the child.

bookWorkbook : Rousseau's Emile (1762)

Rousseau also promoted breastfeeding in a time when many wealthy families sent their babies to wet-nurses. Breastmilk was nature's food, and thus most suitable for a baby.

Freedom plays a large part in this aspect of the Enlightenment. "Man is born free, but everywhere is in chains." Rousseau's political treatise, the Social Contract, promoted this idea, that government was meant not to control human beings, but to do their collective will.
bookWorkbook document: Rousseau's Social Contract (1763)


Late Baroque

The Late Baroque style was popular at the beginning of the Enlightenment, but was also a holdover from the 17th century. Handel is a great example:

Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks: Overture (1749)

The grandeur and formality of the style are characteristc. I don't like listening to Handel. I keep looking over my shoulder to see what great person is entering the room! Handel was a professional composer, who achieved international fame and earned a fortune with his music.

Bach musicJohann Sebastian Bach kept the drama, but focused on skillful renditions of variations on themes people would enjoy listening to. In contrast to Handel, Bach's influence was confined to Protestant Germany until after his death, when others revived his music.

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos -- Concerto No. 4 in G major (1721)

Bach's music is intellectual, and to my mind a far better representation of refined Enlightenment tastes.

Classic music

Many of us use the term "classical music" to mean anything that's old, doesn't have lyrics, and is played on violin or piano. But in fact it's a specific era and style marking an effort toward true lyricism, using clear melodies which could be enjoyed by the elites in society who patronized composers. The music tends to be light, with little of the dissonance that occurred in Baroque music.

Classicists were trying to revive an ideal of balance and moderation inherent in the ancient societies of Greece and Rome, while at the same time creating graceful melodies and harmonies.

MozartWolfgang Amadeus Mozart took what could have been a very austere and restrained form, and created some of the most beautiful music in history. Although he wanted to be a court composer, he worked in many genres, including opera and dance music. He died unappreciated and unfulfilled in his ambitions; in some ways I think his music was simply beyond the comprehension of the wealthier set of patrons. (In the play and film Amadeus, the Emperor tells him his music has "too many notes".) In his case, it was the middle class that knew a good thing when they heard it. Here's one with lots of notes:

Mozart: First Movement, Sonata No. 15 in C Major (1788)

Baroque music reflected the drama and emotion of religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant, while Classical music reflected an orderly, controlled, graceful society. The transition marks the Enlightenment.

Now see how the art and music went together in the transfer from Baroque to Classical


Baroque to Classical from Lisa M Lane on Vimeo.

Link to audio only with narration

The Salons

While the figures we study in the Enlightenment tend to be male, without women-run salons the ideas of the Enlightenment would have remained only among elite intellectuals.

Salons were informal gatherings of intellectuals. Originating in France in the 17th century, they tended to be run by women who opened their homes and parlors for discussions lasting several hours. As a forum for both aristocrats (many of the salon originators were upper-class) and middle-class scholars, it was one of the few places where the classes mixed.


It was at the salons that the ideas of the culture and civilization were transmitted. One reason was the lack of formal education provided to women at the time, which left most of them unable to read or write Latin, the language of science and ideas. Such women demanded simplification and translations of the major scientific and philosophical works of the day. Because of them and their salons, most major works were translated into vernacular languages (most commonly French, English, or German). After a while, even doctors began writing in French! Please peruse some document exerpts about the salons.

From France, the salon idea spread to other nations, though the role of women differed in each. In Spain, for example, male and female salons were separate. But the idea of female participation was encouraged by Enlightenment thinkers, most of whom believed in mothers as the first teachers of civilization.Wollstonecraft

The frustration of women with their poor education also was part of the work of Mary Wollstonecraft. (This document isn't actually assigned reading until we get to the French Revolution.)

book Workbook document :Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

Wollstonecraft claimed that society degraded women. Better education would focus on making women into true adults, and thus entitled to full rights. The popular training of women as "ladies" hurt family and society; females needed to be "women". The basis of her argument was that there was no difference of nature or virtue between male and female. She was a radical.


The most important thing to understand about fashion during this era is the influence of the French Revolution.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the extravagance of the late 17th century had calmed down a lot (remember those ribbons and lace and powder?). By 1725 you have a style of dress for men that should remind you of later 18th century American revolutionaries like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (America was about a generation behind European fashion). The origin of the suit is more obvious here, though the vest is still long (they called it a waistcoat, pronounced wes-cott). The heels and lace are more reasonable, and elites wore wigs (Jefferson wore his own full red hair). Male hair was tied back with a ribbon. The tri-cornered hat on his knee was made of beaver fur from the New World. 1725 fashion plate

1775 fashion plate

The hair was dressed over a huge pad made of horsehair, and was often kept in place for days over the course of the usual house parties. Women slept with their head perched carefully on a roll pillow to preserve the hairstyle. Such hair was subject to vermin, lice and creatures that made the scalp itchy. (What we call a "back scratcher" was originally used to scratch itchy heads!)

As the extravagance of royal families increased again, dress became more showy, especially for women. For elites, it was a political statement -- rich fabrics showed wealth. Layers and layers of material were required to make the wide skirts that were fashionable. To the left is a classic dress worn by someone who looks like Marie Antoinette, queen of France at the beginning of the French Revolution. Doorways became wider in elite homes as a result of these dresses.

The picture above is from a modern children's book, and illustrates the novelty hats used to denote wealth and status at court. This one is a bird cage with a real bird; others had miniature fountains, ships or music boxes!

With the Revolution came, shall we say, a distaste for the aristocracy. The extravagance of the Ancién Regime was swept away. Men in France wore more English-style clothing. Collars rose precipitously. Napoleon's tax on hair powder caused it to go out of fashion, and men tended toward their own hair and other styles that did not require a servant's help. The vest was now short. The guy here looks exactly like Thomas Paine.

Women wore the "Empire" gown, which went straight down from waist to stocking-clad feet in flat slippers. Far more comfortable than the boning and petticoats required for the previous style. Also more revealing, as light showed through the skirts. The hair was simple, but the ostrich feathers and turban were part of the "Orientalism" fashionable after Napoleon's expansion in North Africa.

1793 fashion plate


Hogarth woman

Sexuality says as much about cultural norms as art, music, fashion or any other aspect of the humanities. Plus I find the topic fascinating!


Condoms were invented back in the 17th century in response to an epidemic of syphilis (a sexually-transmitted disease that causes insanity, sterility, and death). By the 18th century they were popularized for birth control. Condoms were made of sheep gut or fish skin, and were sold in brothels and by specialists who supplied apothecaries (druggists), ship captains, and gentlemen. Condoms were expensive and thus not disposable; they were highly durable and were washed with soap in between uses. They were usually soaked in water before use. Men of means sometimes "kept" mistresses, housed in homes purchased for them (I'm sure some of these women ran salons too). Condoms were a good way to protect that relationship as well.

Non-mainstream sexuality

Gay history is its own field now, but the history of how mainstream society treats gays says a lot about its level of openness and tolerance.

During the 1730s, the Netherlands experienced a mass persecution of people we would today call gays. There were numerous trials for sodomy. Since sodomy was the formal charge, those persecuted were all men (lesbians didn't fit the charge, so to speak). If one confessed to sodomy (as did about 10% of those put on trial), the punishment was death. Those who didn't confess were subject to 30-50 years in prison or were banished. Death or banishment meant all your property was confiscated. The Dutch blamed the "effeminate French influence". Since sodomites were not considered to be sexually different from others (in other words, they weren't homosexuals, but rather men who had engaged in the act of sodomy), historians suspect other causes of the persecution. Certain judges made their careers this way, playing on local fears encouraged by Calvinist churches. I'd like to see some research on the 600 or so men who were convicted, because I suspect political motivations as well.

Another element of 18th century sexuality was the advent of an image related to fashion: the "Queen". Before 1700, as you've seen, fancy dress for men was the norm, at least for elites. Effeminacy, nice manners, makeup were not considered related to ones sexual orientation. In fact, it is generally considered that before 1700, many men were probably what we would call "bisexual", but not in the sense of being sexually attracted to both men and women at the same time of life. Rather, since ancient Greek times, and again since the Renaissance, it was common for a mentoring relationship to exist between older men and boys, which were also sexual in their educational content. In addition, there were "rakes", super-virile men who lived libertine lifestyles which included fine food, fine wine, loose women, and boys.

a fop
Leslie Howard as The Scarlet Pimpernel, the ultimate fop, with female friend

At the beginning of the 18th century, there were also men known as "fops", who dressed a bit over-the-top and acted slinky. Marginalized from the mainstream society, where men wore sword canes and were ready for violence on a moment's notice, fops spent much of their time with women. They were seen as having better insight into women's emotional lives than men, and husbands considered them non-threatening companions. But their sexuality was seen as being mainstream.

By 1750, society began to see such fops as being gay. True homosexuality, the orientation exclusively toward others of the same sex, was not considered normal. As the revolution came closer, men in fancy dress were seen as suspect, politically and sexually. Gay men might have kept to the fashion to identify partners, even in this dangerous time. Such men in Britain were called "mollies", slang for prostitute.

Why such a shift in perceptions? One theory is that the Enlightenment led to "too much" individuality and gender equality. This made things insecure for men, so society found a way to separate men into distinct types, in ways connected to sex. Whatever the cause, our current definitions of gay, straight, and bi date from this era.


Genre Novels

A favorite theme of 18th century literature is "The Love Game". It was based on libertinism; libertines are men who indulge in pleasure without restraint. In this pattern, a libertine conducted four stages of a love affair with a young woman:

1. Selection -- wherein he selects the woman for his game
2. Seduction -- where he seduces her, physically and morally
3. Subjection -- where he bends her to his will until she breaks (famous libertine Casanova said this was the best part)
4. Separation -- a moment of high drama, when he abandons her

Valmont still
Meg Tilly as the innocent virginal victim in Valmont

The most popular novels of the day used this pattern; one example is Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, a psychological portrait of the players in this game. Typical to most of these "genre novels", the story is about the corruption of an innocent girl, and includes mental torture of the victim (in some novels, it was physical torture). The movies Valmont (1989) and Dangerous Liasons (1988) were both based on this book.

Also popular were the novels of the Marquis de Sade, who spent 1777-1790 in prison for half-poisoning a prostitute with the aphrodisiac Spanish Fly (cantharis). He wrote novels illustrating not only extraordinary sexually diverse acts, but the intense pleasure that some people get by causing others pain. The word "sadism" is named after him.

These books all contained a moral lesson, in that the virtuous girl always ends up in heaven, and the rake usually meets a violent end. Yes, and people read Playboy for the articles.

Who read this stuff? Historians believe the best customers were men tired of deferring to "ladies" in elegant, sophisticated culture.

The Marriage Game

There are, of course, tamer novels focusing on other social themes, in particular the habits of finding someone to marry. The sentimentalism of the 18th century led to more marriages based on love. Both selections in the workbook take a perspective on this topic.

book Workbook document: Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749)
book Workbook document: Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (1773)  

Crime That Paid

The 18th century saw enormous wealth change hands, particularly in international trade. This wealth led to an increase in crimes of theft.

Rare picture of actual 18th century highwayman in action. Just kidding. A movie still from 1951. Even the horse is wrong, but you get the idea, right?

Highwaymen (and women)

House parties were common among elites. Guests would come from miles away in their fancy coaches, bringing all the jewelry necessary to establish their status at the party, plus gold for tips and betting. Coachmen were sometimes armed against robbery. Masked highwaymen would lie in wait for coaches, most often as they returned exhausted from the multi-day party. At gunpoint, they'd take jewelry and money.

Some highwaymen were poor farmers dispossessed by enclosure and other economic changes, but those captured indicate that highway robbery was also a recreational activity for bored elites. It was dangerous and exciting; the punishment if caught was hanging. Unmaskings sometimes revealed women, doing it for the same reasons as men: money or excitement.


The Golden AgeAnne Bonny and Mary Read of international trade meant the golden age of piracy. They became a source of romantic culture and legend. You may have heard of Blackbeard and such. But two of the most interesting pirates were women: Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Anne Bonny was born in Charleston, South Carolina. She stabbed a servant, beat an attempted rapist, and ran off with the pirate Calico Jack Rackham. On board his ship, she fell in love with the cabin boy, who turned out to be Mary Read in disguise. They became close friends and fought together with Jack. In 1720 their ship was surprised by a British navy vessel while the men of the crew, including Jack, were drunk. Anne and Mary tried to fight them off alone, Mary at one point stabbing a drunken crewmate and yelling, "come up and fight like men!" They were captured and put on trial in Jamaica. Both women "pled their bellies", meaning they were both pregant and thus by law could not be hanged. Upon hearing that Calico Jack had been hanged, Anne said he should have fought like a man. No record shows her death, so she may have bought her way out of prison, but Mary died of fever in prison.

These kind of stories led to centuries of pirate legends, theme park rides, and movies.
Pirates of the Caribbean ride Pirates movie poster




All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.